The Animal School by @PaulStrange

Viewing every child holistically and as an individual

Once upon a time the animals decided that they must organise themselves to meet the problems of the new world. So they organised a school.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Paul Strange and published with kind permission.

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Today I’d like to start with a fable.

Once upon a time the animals decided that they must organise themselves to meet the problems of the new world. So they organised a school.

They adopted an activity-based curriculum consisting of the essentials in life, namely running climbing swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent at swimming, in fact better than his instructor, but he was only average at flying and was poor at running. Since he was so slow at running he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practise running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were so badly worn and he was only average at swimming.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown brought on by the pressures of having to learn to swim and fly.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing class. She tried to teach the others but over-exerted herself and ended with a C in climbing and a D in running, failing flying and swimming altogether.

The eagle was a problem pupil and was severely disciplined. In the climbing class she beat all of the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using her own way of getting there. The teacher was annoyed that she failed to follow the climbing instructions and so her wings were clipped as punishment. Now she couldn’t fly at all and was learning to run instead.

At the end of the year an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run and fly a little had the highest average and was hailed as ‘top of the class’. He died soon after as a result of an unfortunate climbing accident.

The dogs stayed out of school and fought the authorities because they wouldn’t add digging and retrieving to the curriculum.

This fable is entitled ‘The Animal School’ and features in the book The Art of Being a Brilliant Teacher’ co-written by Gary Townsend, Chris Henley and Andy Cope.

Let’s all just take a moment to reflect on this short tale.

I’m sure that we all know at least one duck, rabbit, squirrel, eagle, eel and dog! Think of the many children whom you have encouraged, taught and ultimately assessed against a predetermined set of criteria. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education. It doesn’t seem a million miles away from the school set up by the animals does it?

I’m not suggesting that attempting to provide children with a strong foundation within the realms of reading, writing and mathematics is not a good idea. In fact, I think that it is a marvellous ideal. However it can be an ideal which sometimes clouds our judgements of children’s true skill and potential.

I’m sure that we’ve all had the experience of teaching a child who struggles with the core subjects even though they are purposeful, determined and focused learners. Then there is that day when you decide to take your drama lesson outside as the sun is shining and the children are all gazing wistfully out of the classroom windows. It’s then that it happens. That one child takes to your makeshift stage and shines in a way that is nothing short of inspired. They’ve found their niche. Similarly is the day that you offer up full creative license to the children in addition to a veritable treasure trove of artistic tools and materials. An hour later one of the quiet children in your class gingerly steps forward toting a piece of artwork that makes you sit up and sigh, ‘Wow’. Once again they’ve found their niche.

I appreciate that we are trying to instil within children that core set of skills that leave them in good stead to join the adult world of ‘real-life’. I also understand when people say to me that they still value and give credence to the achievements of children that are not housed under the general umbrella of the ‘core’ subjects.

However, and herein lies the important message I feel, are we really giving the children a shot at going from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’? Just think for a second and consider just how powerfully that child could command the stage given more time to practise or just how you would marvel at the artistic creations expertly woven together by that one quiet child. It’s a sad fact that sometimes we’ll even cut off these lines of enquiry for children because we deem them to be ‘good’ at them in favour of pushing them in other areas, forcing them to ‘average’ out. This applies not only to the arts of course but to skill in sporting activities and the plethora of other disciplines.

I’m not suggesting for a second that we shouldn’t be focusing our efforts on teaching children the necessary skills of reading, writing and mathematics. A solid foundation in these areas is essential for full and comfortable functioning in modern society and without them people can sometimes be left feeling disenfranchised. What I am saying is that it is important to view each child individually and holistically. The aforementioned tale comes armed with many elements which inspire reflection and it is my opinion that reflections of this nature keep us both grounded and invested in the futures of the young people whom we teach.

Here is my personal advice to the animal school:

1. Allow the duck to continue swimming. Yes it’s important to give him instruction in other areas perhaps but not at the expense of his one true passion.

2. Encourage the rabbit to take time to recover and recuperate. Encourage her to set herself achievable and realistic goals along the way. In addition, still encourage her to dream big for the future and she’ll discover ways of getting there.

3. Praise the squirrel’s natural gravitation towards supporting others. Putting the needs of others ahead of her own is a shining, golden quality. Explain that it’s also acceptable for her to focus on her own needs too and that she should strike a healthy balance.

4. Restore the eagle’s wings immediately and review your school’s behaviour policy. Also consider praising children for carving their own path to the top of the tree and for finding their own strategies to support their learning.

5. Offer digging and retrieving as extra-curricular activities in order to get the dogs into school.

If this entry introduces just one person to the animal school fable and gives them food for thought which helps them to reflect on education practices then I’ll view my ramblings as having been worthwhile.

Stay sharp (and view every child holistically and as an individual)

Paul Strange describes himself as: Creative, proactive and driven primary school teacher. Literacy Coordinator & Talk for Writing specialist. Keen artist! Follow on Twitter…

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